Let’s start by discussing some of the attributes often ascribed to a “bad lead.” Some of the attributes of a “bad lead” are; “they were rough,” “they were completely off time,” “they didn’t smile,” or “they didn’t even look at me,” “they led me into other dancers and I got stepped on,” and “I couldn’t tell what they wanted me to do.” I am sure there are other complaints but this will be a good starting point.
So what are some common attributes of a “good lead?” “They were a smooth or a soft lead,” “they were really fun to dance with,” “the floor was really crowded but they made sure I didn’t get stepped on” or “they were really musical.”
What lessons can we learn from these attributes on how to improve as a salsa lead?
1. Connect with your dance partner – this is the easiest thing you can do to improve the dance for both you and your dance partner. Regardless of skill level, if you make eye contact with your partner, smile, and look like you’re actually having fun dancing with them, you will automatically be more fun to dance with than someone who is looking at the floor, or at their friends to show off how “good” they are. Also don’t take yourself too seriously, if you’re less experienced and you mess up just laugh about it and keep going.
2. Be conscious of your space and surroundings – this should go without saying but unfortunately a lot of teachers don’t teach or give tips about dancing in the “real world.” In the classroom setting you may have plenty of space but if you go out dancing and the floor is crowded with other dancers you will need to adjust the way you dance i.e. keeping your dancing tighter and more compact, and being very careful to not send your dance partner into dangerous situations where they can get stepped on. It might take a little practice to develop this habit but always look and make sure the coast is clear before sending your dance partner across in a cross body lead .
3. Adjust to your dance partner – each new person you dance with is going to feel slightly different. For example some are going to be “heavy follows,” while others are going to be “light follows.” You may have to lead a little stronger for a heavy follow than for a light follow. If you can tell they likes doing footwork or shines let them do it instead of picking them up right away for more turn patterns, conversely if you see they are uncomfortable being on their own and doing shines pick them up instead of showing off and doing every shine you know. Also if they are more of a beginner or not a good spinner do not lead them into 10 spins! Actually don’t lead anybody into 10 spins on the dance floor, there is no need for this on the social dance floor, multiple spins like this are purely a choreography wow factor or trick and should only ever be done while performing.
4. Don’t stop moving – when you stop moving your feet while you are spinning or turning the follow you are not dancing anymore. This is not just a problem for beginners, there are plenty of “higher level or professional salsa dancers’ with this really bad habit. If dancing is moving to music and you stop moving while the music is still playing then you are no longer dancing. For beginners, try to avoid creating this bad habit of stopping your movement while spinning your partner which will make it much easier to mark the timing of the music and keep you on time. For more intermediate and higher dancers this will make you a smoother dancer as you will be able to conserve momentum instead of starting and stopping your movements.
5. How you lead your partner is very important – as has been mentioned above you don’t want to be a rough lead. The biggest tip to improve this problem is to learn about frame and leading with your body as opposed to your arms. This takes some practice but a good teacher can take a lot of the mystery out of it for you. While we’re on the subject of how to lead your dance partner the most important quality is to be clear in your lead. Yes you want to be a “soft lead” but some leads get overly concerned with this goal to the point where their lead becomes ambiguous to the follow and she can’t figure out what they want her to do. So find a balance; be soft, but also clear and direct in your lead.
6. Listen to the music! – Yes your fancy turn patterns are cool but if you are off time or not respecting the mood or musicality of what you’re supposed to be dancing to then what’s the point. If you have trouble with timing practice listening and counting to the music or better yet seek out help to make sure you understand what you should be listening for. Dance differently to different songs….if the song is slow and romantic don’t dance the same as you would for a really fast energetic song. For slow songs take longer steps and movements to fill out the music and use simple partner work such as cross body leads, back spot turns, whips and wraps. For fast songs take shorter steps and use more sharp turn patterns and movements such as copas and reverse copas, as well as the same movements for slow songs, just do them tighter and sharper.
7. Don’t get stuck dancing in patterns – most classes teach shines and partnerwork in long patterns. This is a great way to teach a lot of material but it also puts people in a box that many can’t find their way out of. When learning partner work make sure to understand the separate pieces and how they go together so you can dissect them later and mix and match. For example a turn pattern might have some kind of cross body lead that is followed by a prep turn, followed by some kind of copa and so on. Understanding the separate components will make it easier for you to dissect these patterns and make up your own, and with practice you can get to the point where you are truly dancing freestyle and the next step you lead you make up on the spot depending on the music. The same principle should be applied to solo footwork/shines.
Work on developing what for this article we’ll call “tactile sensitivity” or “responsiveness.” Sometimes you’re dancing and the follow might know the song really well and wants to play with the music/or hit a break. You will usually be able to feel that your partner wants to do something. They may give you a little squeeze to make sure that you are there for them as counterbalance or you may feel them trying to create some space so they can do some footwork. It takes some practice but learn to be flexible and responsive so that you don’t stop them from expressing themselves too.
Want to improve your leading and dancing come and check out our classes Vitalidad Movement Arts Center.
Written by Jamal Rahima